Thursday, September 13, 2012

Barney Is History, So Kill Purple Prose!

You may have heard the term, "purple prose". If not, let's explore this phenomenon of exaggerated writing.

Wikipedia (yes, that font of online wisdom) defines purple prose as:
...a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggeratedsentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader's response.
I'd say that's a pretty accurate definition. In my simplified language, purple prose = trying too hard. 

In today's publishing world, writers are encouraged to create a style that will stand out from the rest and keep their work from being just another fish in the huge sea of books. Unfortunately, in that effort to stand out among the rest, the result can be prose that's so overwritten, it screams LOOK AT ME!!! I"M DIFFERENT!!

You've likely seen examples of this before. It seems to occur most frequently in the literary, romance, and fantasy genres, but like reruns of that deranged dinosaur, purple prose can pop up anywhere. 

A quite popular example (from Wikipedia again) is from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (1803–1873), who begins his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the sentence: 
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. 
Often shortened to just "It was a dark and stormy night", this opening has given rise to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which contestants are asked to supply similarly florid opening sentences to their own otherwise imaginary novels.
Deb Stover, who wrote a great article entitled "The Purple Prose Eater" for How To Write a Romance For The New Markets, researched romantic several texts for examples. Here's one of those gems:
Some of the participants in my research became a little...carried away. Example? "The dragon of his desire writhed beneath his tight-stretched trousers." Ahem.
I suspect the hilarity of reading such things in romance keeps some readers from being fans of the genre and many writers from attempting love scenes.

So, what's a writer to do? How do you bring a strong voice to your work without writing something that either leaves a reader scratching their heads or laughing aloud because it's obvious you've tried too hard?

I don't think there's a really simple answer. Like most areas of writing, it boils down to hard work. Write, re-write, write again. Critique partners (good ones) are invaluable for pointing out these areas and giving you honest feedback when the prose turns Barney-ish. Eventually, if you can get to the point where a reader or critique partner says "I was so caught up reading that I forgot I was critiquing (or lost track of time)", then you KNOW you're onto something.

My goal, and perhaps it should be yours too, if you're a writer, is to write a story in such a way that the reader doesn't see the words. They see only the story and characters. I essentially become invisible. Some might scoff at that: If I'm invisible, how do I get noticed?

If that's a concern, then ask yourself: Why do you write? To tell a great story or to get noticed? If your goal is mostly the latter, sure you might get noticed, but maybe not in the ways you wanted. Strive for learning the art of storytelling without resorting to a fresh coat of purple, and when you do get noticed, your work will resonate more in the readers' minds.

Try something for practice: Take a sample paragraph from a published work or your own work that you feel is particularly purple (overwritten). Rewrite it to make it as simple as possible. Note how short it became. Now, play with the passage, paying mind to character voice and atmosphere. See what you can come up with--still keeping it simple, but as active and true to the text as possible. If you do this and want to share your exercise, please do so in the comments.

Or, feel free to share your own findings of Barney-colored prose (citing title and author, of course). Happy writing!


  1. Oh dear, there have been a lot of books I've read that fall into the purple hue. One of the main ones that come to mind are Anne Rice's novels when at times you feel like you're wading through a torrent of words, silently screaming "Enough already!" :)
    I will be trying your exercise as I am guilty sometimes not of purple prose but Ultraviolet! Lol.

  2. I'm a big fan of purple prose. It was the appearance of just such a piece in my local magazine that inspired me to send them my first story. I thought if they'd print that they'd print anything. But seriously, I think now we're going too far the other way. Editors are trying to reduce stories to mere lists of actions with no adverbs, no variety of tenses, nothing that makes language beautiful and compelling. I think I prefer purple!

    1. There's always room for some artistic leeway in writing, Jenny. But, sometimes, writers go too far to stand out. When you have to read a line three times to understand what the heck they're trying to say, that's overwriting.

  3. I recently had to give up reading Ray Bradburys Sonething Wicked This Way Comes because it was purple throughout. I started counting the number of words in sentences. The record was 68! I actually found reading the book sent me to sleep - the effort required exhausted me. But it saddens me. Underneath all the tautology I am sure was a brilliant novel.

  4. I don't mind a little purple prose from time to time, but the overuse of it, just like the overuse of anything, hurts my head.

  5. Great article, great discussion, Mysti. I'm thinking that purple prose is not so much about the length of the sentence as it is about the content of the sentence.

    I am currently taking an MFA course that stretches your mind to practice writing different length sentences which contain good content to help give your writing a certain tone or style. Since I tend to feel my writing is sometimes stiff and boring, I am finding the course very informative and helpful.

    However, I think that when a writer uses such a description as in the example, "The dragon of his desire writhed beneath his tight-stretched trousers." the writer is indeed trying too hard to come up with something original and it is blatantly obvious, not to mention hilarious, especially to writers.

    If there is a dragon withering beneath those trousers, then I for one am going to run! I read a lot of romance and I think that example may just be one of the funniest and yet worse lines I've ever read.

    But hey, I'm no expert!


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